A look at the crown prince behind Saudi Arabia's spat with Canada
Published Wednesday, August 8, 2018 10:00PM EDT
To understand Saudi Arabia’s abrupt decision to revolt against Canada over a tweet, experts say it’s important to understand the kingdom’s aggressive – and often perplexing – future leader.
At 32 years old, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been described as a powerful force of change looking to introduce modern ideas to Saudi Arabia.
The prince earned international notice in June when Saudi Arabia lifted its ban on women driving cars. He also scrapped a 35-year ban on cinemas, met Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace and once described his vision for the kingdom’s future as “the next Europe.”
The prince’s youthful approach has won over a large contingent of young Saudi supporters, particularly online, where he is colloquially known as MBS.
He’s the youngest defence minister in the world and serves as the kingdom’s deputy prime minister. One day, he’ll take over the throne from his father, King Salman.
But bin Salman’s reputation as a forward-thinker is hardly spotless.
Hours after the driving ban was lifted, women’s rights activists who supported the change were arrested. Bin Salman has also led the charge for the war in Yemen, where Saudi-led coalition air attacks have been responsible for nearly two-thirds of civilian deaths, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
The arrests prompted immediate confusion. Why arrest activists who support your policy? Steven Cook, who has authored several books about Middle Eastern politics, says the move was meant to send a clear message.
“To warn those within Saudi Arabia that the only reform is the reform that is defined by the crown prince. It’s to say there can be no dissent,” Cook told CTV News.
The nation’s latest retaliation stems from a Global Affairs Canada tweet, sent last Friday, that called for the immediate release of imprisoned women’s rights activists.
Saudi Arabia lashed back by expelling Canada’s ambassador, pulling its own ambassador, suspending trade, ordering thousands of students and medical trainees to return to the Middle Eastern nation and suspending Saudi state flights to Toronto.
Some see picking a fight with Canada as bin Salman’s way of sending a message to other countries thinking of questioning Saudi Arabia’s domestic affairs.
If that’s the case, Cook says it’s an odd tactic.
“To try to intimidate a country like Canada, quite frankly, seems like a bizarre way of going about it,” he said.
The real reason behind the move, Cook suggests, is fear. In an article published in Foreign Policy, Cook suggested that Saudi leadership understands that there is a gap between “the stories the government is telling its citizens about how good life is under its benevolent leaders and how people are actually experiencing it.”
If Saudi leadership wasn’t intimidated by women’s rights protesters -- and, by extension, Canada’s support for their freedom -- there would be little reason to revolt, Cook says.
“The Saudis are essentially whipping up national sentiment against Canada because the royal court feels weak,” he said.
Former Liberal foreign affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy says that, ever since the Second World War, Canada has been a leader when it comes to upholding the international rules-based order. Speaking out against human rights abuses, he says, is “not a new role for Canada.”
“I think what is different is that the over-the-top, berserk reactions of the Saudis,” Axworthy told CTV News Channel on Wednesday.
When it comes to bin Salman’s aggressive tactics, Axworthy questioned whether the young leader is “kind of losing it.” He equated bin Salman’s approach to a public relations campaign that does little to modernize his country.
“I think the crown prince has come in with a great fanfare about being a new reformer, a new age, new generation Saudi leader, but he and his father have actually been engaged in some of the worst kind of abuses, including executions, including imprisonment of anybody who has any dissenting point of view,” he said.
Some observers have suggested that Saudi Arabia may be following U.S. President Donald Trump’s example and bashing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau because he embodies the opposite end of the political spectrum. Trump called Trudeau “weak” after the prime minster said Canada won’t be pushed around by the U.S. on trade following a tumultuous G7 summit in Quebec.
For what it’s worth, Cook isn’t convinced that Trump has anything to do with the kingdom’s abrasive reaction.
“The Saudis would be doing this regardless of who’s in the White House,” he said.
Saudi Arabia’s poor record on human rights is regularly scrutinized. Homosexuality is still punishable by death in the kingdom, and Saudi Arabia consistently ranks among the world’s least free nations, according to watchdog group Freedom House. Amnesty International has pointed out that activists who’ve spoken out against the kingdom have been silenced with the death penalty.
With a report from CTV’s London Bureau Chief Paul Workman and The Associated Press